PHOTO CREDIT: UW-Whitewater/Craig Schreiner
That’s what it felt like.
All eyes were focused on me, and the unnerving feeling that accompanies that situation washed over me with a hot flash.
I anticipated the undivided attention, but assumed it would be like stepping onto a stage before an audience. I know how that moves me deep inside, and how I kinda savor that challenge. In a blink I realized this was difference. I knew nothing.
Squirming left and right, up and down, front to back, I worked desperately to find a comfort zone. It was, in a word, impossible. I fought the urge to walk away. Disappear. That just wasn’t an option.
I simply surrendered, emotionally, and gripped my reality. I placed my hands on the metal rims on my wheels, pushed forward, and inched my wheelchair toward those intimidating eyes.
So it began, my career of participatory journalism. In the old gymnasium atop the hill at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, I rolled into practice with one of the top wheelchair basketball teams in the nation.
I made it clear up front I would only do this on one condition: No breaks, no favors, just the raw, real deal.
Oh, they delivered.
Up and down the court they raced, like a ballet on wheels — somehow avoiding my impersonation of a demolition derby entry. Then our worlds collided.
Racing recklessly out of control for a free ball, I rammed into a wheelchair piloted by a double-amputee Veteran. I remember a loud crash. And a body flying to the floor.
I snatched the ball out of thin air, then looked to the hardwood. It took my breath away.
He flipped about, to and fro, like a fish out of water. Screaming, wildly, “My legs! My legs!” I dropped the ball and leaped from my chair.
“I’m sorry!” I shouted. “I’m sorry!!”
“My legs, man,” he said glaring into my eyes with a dramatic pause as I froze. “I don’t have any!”
With that he flashed a Cheshire cat smile, pushed himself up on his arms, and hopped to the free ball. In an amazingly smooth, swift athletic move, he scooped it up, tossed it on his chair, and in another blink, popped into the chair and raced uncontested down the court for an easy layup with everyone in the gymnasium — but me — roaring in laughter.
At that moment I understood nothing can substitute true experience.
I never went full George Plimpton over the edge, but I did continue to search for first-hand experiences during my career.
I got the chance to play one-on-one against Mater Dei High School’s 6-foot-11 LeRon Ellis, considered at the time the top prep basketball prospect in the nation, who eventually played at Kentucky and Syracuse and was a first-round pick in the NBA. I found amazing perspective.
As I tried to play defense pushing on him with every ounce my 5-11, 175-pound frame could muster, he’d bounce his hip gently and send me flying five feet backward.
Eventually we hit the baseline. He began to go up. From where I stood, it looked like the side-camera shot of a NASA rocket launching to the heavens. Baseline jumper, I thought. Then I looked up to see a him stretched out over me executing a vicious slam dunk. Basketball never looked the same.
I never had illusions that I’m anything more than an average to below-average Joe. Others who participate do so from some base of talent. Not me. I have none.
When it came to cycling, I wanted a taste of the pros.
I covered a number of Tour DuPonts, and watched many epic battles up Beech Mountain in North Carolina. I had a couple extra days one year and my bike, so I hit the climb up Beech.
Well, to be honest, the climb up Beech hit me. Whacked me in the head. I nearly cried for mercy as I could barely turn my cranks where I watched Lance Armstrong go head-to-head with Raul Alcala and Viatcheslav Ekimov.
Still, I wanted to know what it was like to ride with a true mountain climber. Back in the day, Jonathan Vaughters obliged. We hit the roads outside Boulder, Colorado that jet upward into the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.
We rode around for an hour or so chit-chatting about life as a pro. Sharing how he ticked off Lance Armstrong when they were juniors with Armstrong chasing Vaughters around camp screaming at him.
Then we hit the climb. He punched it and I would have sworn he was on a motorcycle.
He exploded away from me, disappearing as a dot over the hill in a matter of seconds. My legs hadn’t even begun to scream about the climb. I kept climbing, my legs turning to jelly as I simply tried to get to Vaughters’ point of disappearance.
Right about there I had enough. I turned around and coasted to the flats, riding back to the office with a profound perspective on cycling I never could discover in the seat of a press car.
These days I continue to write about personal experiences. This is column 52. Yep, a whole year’s worth. Thanks for reading.
Time to ride.